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A cold day in heaven Eco-tourism: At its own glacial pace, Antarctica opens its dramatic, remote, frigid beauty to those who would go to the ends of the earth to experience awe.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PALMER ARCHIPELAGO, Antarctica - Dorothy's right. This is definitely not Kansas anymore. Flung by the sea, I've sailed into the Land of Awes.

To both starboard and port, mountainous islands rip skyward, jutting from water that defines navy blue. Only the sharpest, most jagged ridges expose daggers of anvil-black rock. Thick mantles of glacial ice smother the rest, concealing summits and slopes beneath mounds of glistening white.

Inspiring as they seem, these ocean-piercing Everests are but the first fragments of the last land on earth. The tip of Antarctica lies a short way beyond.

Owned by no nation, Antarctica is the world's most remote continent. For decades, the only tourists to wallow in its grandeur were those cruisers who could afford five-figure fares. The fall of the Cold War changed that.

With Russia nearing bankruptcy, ice-hardened research ships became available at reasonable rates. Outfitters, such as Marine Expeditions in Toronto, leased vessels and began offering southern cruises at Caribbean prices. Their catalog arrived the same day as my new MasterCard. Yielding to the omen, I used the plastic to buy a boarding pass for the R/V Akademik Ioffe.

Ice and penguins

The 620-mile-wide Drake Passage separates the Antarctic Peninsula from South America. This tempestuous merger of two oceans wields the wildest water on earth. By Drake standards, our crossing is merciful. Winds howl only at near-gale force, the ship merely lists 10 degrees to port, and some of the crashing swells do not even drench my fourth-deck porthole.

Near the mainland, waves calm, and for the first time a line forms for breakfast. Everyone seems eager to ride the inflatable Zodiacs ashore.

"Our first landing will be Cuverville Island," says expedition leader Brad Rhees. "It has one of the largest gentoo penguin rookeries on the peninsula."

In near-freezing temperatures, we descend the gangway to the 10-person boats that bob below. Drivers gun outboards and the Zodiacs take off. Their exhaust temporarily masks the rotten cabbage aroma of penguin droppings wafting from shore.

As we step onto Cuverville's guano-splattered beach, hundreds of waddling, 2-foot-tall penguins greet us like an assembly of midget maitre d's. They poke and peck in curious exploration.

Chicks, nearly as tall as their parents, still sport vestiges of down. Some chase the elders in a squawking quest for dinner. Occasionally the youngsters get fed. Other times, the adults flee the nagging youths.

In the afternoon, we achieve bragging rights to the seventh continent by touching the mainland at Neko Harbor. Dark peaks tower beyond a pebbly beach, their inclines shrouded by glaciers. The ice terminates at the ocean in a humbling escarpment of dense, powder blue.

Chunks float in mirror-still water. A crabeater seal uses one as a raft. He ignores our shorebound paparazzi who look, point and photograph. He's still there when the last Zodiac returns to the former Russian science vessel.

Built in Finland in 1988, the Ioffe offers comfortable but unpretentious accommodations. It carries 80 passengers in addition to its Russian crew. Marine Expeditions adds a staff of nine who, thankfully, include a Canadian bartender and two chefs and ensure we will not have to slurp vodka and borscht the entire trip.

The cooks fire up grills for a deck-top barbecue. We gobble burgers and bratwursts while sailing through the fjord-like Lemaire Channel.

Known as Kodak Gap, this photogenic corridor of soaring ice and rock could be Alaska's Glacier Bay on steroids or the Alps after the Great Flood. We pass through, ogling the same vivid, oil-on-velvet landscape that greeted the first explorers. Antarctica may be the only place on the planet with such vast tracts unaltered by human occupation. Here, our species are transients, confined to a handful of outposts. We tour one in the morning.

Research station

The British constructed Faraday Station shortly after World War II. In 1995, they gave it to Ukrainians who renamed it Vernadsky Base. Roman Bratchik guides us through, proudly showing off science labs and shower rooms. A photo in one hallway captures him swimming in the 35-degree ocean.

"Oh, this is not so frigid a place," says Bratchik, grinning. "It gets much colder in the Ukraine."

In the afternoon, we stop at Petermann Island where fur seals occupy one side of an inlet. These animals have the disposition of Hulk Hogan and the teeth of Mike Tyson. We keep a 50-foot distance.

Across the Antarctic Circle

The Ioffe continues south, bound for the Antarctic Circle. Icebergs float everywhere. Some rise big and flat as a Kansas county. Smaller ones resemble fractured Gibraltars, castles and monoliths. An eerie teal luminescence glimmers from just beneath their waterlines.

The nautical charts indicate these are "unsurveyed waters." Our Russian captain follows a southwesterly heading that overlaps the only known depth soundings.

Dusk and clouds soon smother the sun, and heavy snow begins falling. Visibility diminishes to near nothing. The bridge officers speak in hushed tones, their countenances alternating between confidence and concern.

The captain studies the radar. Irregular shapes splatter its orange screen, each representing a floating chunk of ice. A gargantuan, unseen object lies three kilometers dead ahead. Every pass of the radar shows it closer.

It enters the two-kilometer zone. Still, nothing shows through the gloomy dampness. The captain holds his course.

As the obstacle enters one-kilometer range, he finally commands the helmsman to turn left. Through the weather, I watch an inky shape loom from obscurity. Unlike the Titanic, we clear our berg with a quarter-mile of safety.

In the middle of the night, the Ioffe crosses the Antarctic Circle and anchors near Detaille Island. On the Zodiac ride ashore, we bounce through choppy waters while zigzagging around bergy bits. Icy sea spray pelts us. In the northern hemisphere, one need only step from a warm car to touch land beyond the Arctic Circle. Its southern counterpart proves considerably more harrowing to reach.

After our landing, the ship turns back north. We stop at Port Lockroy, a restored British base. Built during the Second World War, it provided reconnaissance and weather data until 1962. Two Brits, Dave Burkitt and Rob Downie, work at restoring the station and operating what may be the southernmost gift shop in the world.

"We get over 40 tour boats each season," Downie says. "Of course, we can go four or five days without seeing anybody."

Still an uncrowded place

Antarctica may be attracting more tourists, but it remains far from crowded. Last season, about 10,000 people visited, most traveling with companies belonging to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. The organization's strict code of environmental conduct seems to be working. We encounter scant evidence of previous visitation.

The ship makes three more stops on its way north. In Paradise Harbor, we use Zodiacs to explore a cirque of hanging glaciers that drape the bay with a curtain of crystal blue. At Deception Island, the ship sails into a volcano where a breach has allowed a 10-square-mile caldera to fill with water.

Our final Antarctic destination is tiny Aitcho Island in the South Shetland group. The penguins here are not timid. They waddle up, boldly probing our colorful garb. If we sit down, some will even climb onto laps. Not everyone, however, seems eager to have the birds hop atop their bodies.

"You know all that guano we've been smelling," one woman explains. "Well, I know where it comes from."

When You Go ...

The trip: Marine Expeditions' 16-day "Antarctic Peninsula and Circle Crossing" voyage includes 10 shipboard nights sailing to and from Ushuaia, Argentina. A day is spent in Buenos Aires before flying to Ushuaia, the world's southernmost city. Cost, including airfare from Miami, New York, Toronto or Montreal, starts at $2,995 per person, quad occupancy. Port duties and taxes ($495) extra. For information, call 800-263-9147 or go online to www.marineex.com.

In addition to the circle-crossing trip, Marine Expeditions offers shorter Antarctic Peninsula voyages and longer cruises that include visits to the Falkland Islands and/or South Georgia Island.

Who should go: The trip to Antarctica is an eco-tour, not a luxury cruise. It appeals to those wanting to see spectacular scenery and exotic animals in their natural environment. There is no deck service or casino on board, and the pool, if filled at all, will be topped with frigid sea water. Meals are tasty and filling, but hardly gourmet.

The sailing through the Drake Passage can be rough, and many experience bouts of seasickness. Around the Antarctic Peninsula, outside temperatures usually hover near freezing. The fickle weather can change from clear and sunny to a driving blizzard in minutes. Route and landings are weather-dependent. Passengers need a good sense of humor and should be prepared for a variety of conditions. Narrow passages, stairs and confined cabins would make the cruise difficult for those with walking disabilities.

When to go: Trips to Antarctica are offered during the austral summer, beginning in early December and continuing into March. Early season visitors will not see the penguin chicks, which normally hatch in January. By the last sailing, many of the youngsters will have grown and gone to sea.

Weather: If ever there is a place that epitomizes variable conditions, it would be Antarctica. The weather can change from sunny to snowy in mere minutes. Because of the mitigating influence of the sea, outside temperatures on the cruise tend to hover within a few degrees of freezing. Wind can make it seem much colder.

In Buenos Aires, it will be the height of summer with hot, humid conditions. Ushuaia has weather similar to northern Maine. It may be warm and pleasant, or it may be cold and miserable.

What to bring:

* For shore excursions: Dress in layers. Begin with long johns and wool socks; add a turtleneck, sweater, pile jacket and wool ** pants. Outer layers should include an all-weather parka and wind pants, gloves, hat and sunglasses. Add knee-high, insulated, waterproof boots. All landings in the Antarctic are wet and most beaches are covered with layers of penguin droppings.

* Temperatures on board the ship tend to be warm and the dress code casual. T-shirts, light blouses, polo-shirts, jeans and khakis are fine.

* Also pack: an abundant supply of seasickness medication, a small backpack for carrying items ashore, binoculars, sunscreen, water bottle, camera and lots of film.

* Cash: A handful of small denomination U.S. dollars are handy for buying souvenirs at science research stations.

Tips

* Electricity on board is 220 volt/50 cycle. Transformers and converter plugs are required for North American shavers and hair dryers.

* Those who bring more than a pocket-sized camera should invest in a fanny pack gadget bag that will not interfere with a life jacket. Bring lots of freezer-weight plastic bags to keep photo gear dry. An abundance of camera film and videotapes is a must - there is no place to resupply. Camera and camcorder batteries can expire early in cold weather, so bring extras.

* Maintain a good, flexible attitude. Weather dictates everything down south. If the water is too rough, landings will be delayed or canceled.

If conditions are too hazardous, the ship may not be able to make it to the Antarctic Circle. Nothing is guaranteed.

* Suggested reading: One of the best general guides to the frozen continent is the Lonely Planet's "Antarctica" travel survival kit.

Other providers

* On the Web, check out the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators at www.iaato.org.

* Abercrombie & Kent (800-323-7308, www.abercrombiekent.com) offers 14-day Antarctic Peninsula voyages starting at $5,995 (per person, double occupancy) plus airfare and port taxes of $195. It also features longer cruises that stop at the Falklands and South Georgia Island.

* Clipper Cruise Lines (800-325-0010, www.clippercruise.com) will be offering 16-day Antarctica voyages starting at $5,930 plus airfare. It also has extended cruises that include the Falklands.

* Mountain Travel-Sobek (888-687-6235, www.mtsobek.com) has several Antarctic options, with its 19-day "Antarctic Circle and Beyond" running $7,195 plus air. It also has a shorter trip as well as a longer South Georgia-South Orkney loop.

* Quark Expeditions (800-356-5699, www.quark-expeditions.com) features 11-day trips to the Antarctic Peninsula, with prices starting at $3,995 plus air. It also has other options, including a 21-day icebreaker cruise into the Ross Sea for $13,995.

* Society Expeditions (800-548-8669, www.societyexpeditions.com) offers a variety of cruises on its 138-passenger ship, World Discoverer. All voyages attempt to make it below the Antarctic Circle. Trips start at $6,090 plus air.

* Zegrahm Expeditions (800-628-8747, www.zeco.com) offers a number of longer trips to Antarctica, with a 21-day voyage that includes the Antarctic Peninsula, Falklands, South Orkneys and South Georgia for $8,890 plus air.

An Ideal Day

6:30 a.m.: Dress and wander down to the passenger lounge to join other early risers for the morning's first cup of coffee. A sign on one of the doors assures us, "We Brake for Icebergs."

7:30 a.m.: Walk up to the ship's bridge. Detaille Island looms through the mist.

8 a.m.: Breakfast is served. Load a plate with French toast and scrambled eggs, grab a glass of juice and join new acquaintances at a long table.

8:45 a.m.: Return to the cabin to don pile jacket, parka and wind pants. In the Mud Room, pull on insulated "guano boots" and strap on a lifejacket.

9 a.m.: Hop aboard a Zodiac for the short ride to Detaille Island. The rubber craft dodges floating bergy bits on the way in. The landing is wet and icy, but the guides lend helping hands and no one slips.

Once ashore, stroll among the penguins, observe fur seals lounging on distant rocks, and explore an abandoned British Antarctic survey base. Take turns photographing each other south of the circle.

11:30 a.m.: Linger on land, taking the very last Zodiac launch back to the ship. After hosing off boots, slip back into street shoes, strip off the warm layers of outerwear and head to the dining room for a lunch of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.

1:30 p.m.: Return to the bridge to watch our passage through Crystal Sound as we head north. Icebergs float everywhere in the sea. Look for an array of seabirds and pods of humpback whales.

4 p.m.: Retire to the dining room for snacks, tea and coffee.

5 p.m.: Attend slide lecture about the "Antarctic Treaty and the Future of Antarctica." After its conclusion, relax in the ship's library with some quiet reading.

7 p.m.: Visit the lounge for happy hour. Cocktails are made with Antarctic glacial ice that's been hauled back from Detaille Island.

8 p.m.: Head to the dining room for boeuf bourguignonne, pan-fried swordfish and cauliflower-and-cheese sauce. After desert, the staff pours champagne and we toast a successful landing south of the circle.

9:30 p.m.: Watch the evening's video presentation, "90 Degrees South, With Scott to the Antarctic," which graphically tells about the British explorer who lost the race to reach the South Pole and did not live to tell about it.

11 p.m.: Down one last German-style Argentine beer and then it's off to bed.

Pub Date: 12/20/98

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